Sunday, September 29, 2013/lk
OKANOGAN Services are available year-round for Okanogan County’s homeless population, but local organizations are ramping up their efforts with the start of school and the arrival of cooler weather.
“This time of year is when we see people really becoming stressed… Camping potential goes away as the weather gets colder,” Okanogan County Community Action Council Executive Director Lael Duncan said.
Community Action will host an event Oct. 22 at the Tonasket Community Church, 24 W. Fourth St., to help connect homeless residents with services, Duncan said.
“We try to make it as easy as possible by having all the services in one place,” she said, noting that the goal is to host a services event four times a year in different parts of the county.
At these events, people can pick up some warm clothing and get a haircut, a general medical checkup and a flu shot, help with housing and with getting new driver’s licenses or photo identification cards, Duncan said.
Community Action, 424 S. Second Ave. in Okanogan, doesn’t help people find housing, she said, but does help them pay for it.
She estimated that about 70 percent of the county’s homeless are “working poor,” meaning that the adults in the family don’t get enough hours or pay to be able to put down the money needed to rent a home – typically first and last month’s rent, plus a deposit.
The county is required by the federal government to do a point-in-time count of its homeless population every January. For that service and others it contracts with Community Action, which in turn works with other local agencies such as Okanogan Behavioral HealthCare, the Okanogan County Housing Authority and the Support Center.
In January, Okanogan County counted 69 homeless people living with family or friends; 17 people who had shelter, such as emergency or transitional housing; 15 people without any shelter, and 10 people categorized as “chronically homeless,” according to the state Department of Commerce.
Duncan said those numbers aren’t accurate. Many people aren’t counted, she said, sometimes because they have already found a place to sleep temporarily by the time winter comes, or they decide not to be counted because the state requires them to sign a release.
“Right now the housing authority has 30 homeless families waiting for assistance, 78 families that are doubled up and 494 families waiting for a Section 8 voucher,” Duncan said. “This really points to the real numbers of folks in the county who are not stabilized in their housing.”
Even more residents are just one or two paychecks away from being homeless, she said.
“As a community, we really need to come together to stabilize those people,” she said.
Duncan pointed out some common misconceptions about the local homeless population.
“I think that the general perception is that if they’re not seeing people on the street with signs asking for help… then there isn’t a homeless problem,” she said. “Some are homeless through consequences of their own behavior, that’s absolutely true, but they are a minority.
“There’s also an assumption that the homeless are substance abusers,” she said. “That can be a component, but the people we see in our office are rarely in that category.”
Other people who comprise the total homeless population include veterans.
Community Action is waiting to hear if it will receive grants to develop affordable housing for veterans. The agency has helped establish The Shove House, 1009 Koala Drive in Omak, and senior housing at Pine Meadows, 630 N. Pine St., Omak.
Another sub-category of the homeless population that can be difficult to address are the unaccompanied youth who often couch-surf.
“There are a tremendous number of kids in the community who are homeless,” some as young as 12 years old, Duncan said. “When kids are homeless, they’re certainly vulnerable to predators because they need a place to stay, and that person seems so nice.”
Schools offer help under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act to ensure children are fed, clothed and attend school.
Since the recession hit, Omak School District has reported 30-40 students per year who are considered homeless, school homeless liaison Racie McKee said.
Before the recession, the annual average was 10-20 students.
“The number is most likely higher due to high school students that may not live at home because of a diverse set of circumstances, and families that are living with other family members and do not see themselves as homeless since they have a house/apartment where they sleep at night,” McKee said.
For students whose families relocated to another district and want to attend the school they were enrolled in before, the schools will coordinate transportation by bus or some other method, McKee said.
Those arrangements are made only if it’s determined to be in the student’s best interest.
The students also receive free breakfasts and lunches at school. If their parents or guardians enroll them in the after-school program, they’ll get a free snack along with homework help and other activities, McKee said.
A list of food banks across the county is provided on the Omak district’s website.
“Students are also supported with school supplies, which would include P.E. (physical education) shoes and other things that enable them to fully engage in school the same as their peers,” she said.
The district also works with the Family Empowerment Project clothing bank in Okanogan to help provide families with some household and hygiene goods, books and toys for younger children and even prom dresses.
“Proms provide lifetime memories, and no girl should be denied the prom experience due to family income challenges should she want to attend,” McKee said.
Okanogan School District reported 68 homeless youth within its boundaries last year, including four infants with homeless teen parents, according to homeless liaison Julia O’Connor.
Okanogan High School and groups such as the Key Club help students pay for ASB cards and fees for clubs and musical instruments, O’Connor said. Donations of supplies, from clothing to quilts, come through community members and local churches, and the new Bulldog Bites program helps feed students over the holidays.
Community Action also provides basic commodities such as toiletries, and a home repair and weatherization program is helps prevent people in substandard housing from becoming homeless.
The agency also helps people identify the reasons for their homelessness so they don’t “repeat the cycle of crisis in their lives,” Duncan said.
“We try to empower people, not just put people up in a motel for a couple of days and wish them good luck,” she said. “We really encourage people to take responsibility and seek help where they need it, and to help them build their capacity to manage their lives successfully.”
The state Legislature in 2005 set a goal to reduce each county’s homeless population by 50 percent within 10 years, but Duncan said that’s tough with cuts in state funding.
“In order to really end homelessness… it’s going to require a significant influx of money into the county, and we don’t really see that happening right now. We’re kind of in a treading water mode. When the trend reverses, we’ll be prepared.”